A Flood of Newly Confirmed Exoplanets

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Artist renderings of exoplanets previously detected by the Kepler Space Telescope (NASA)
Artist renderings of exoplanets previously detected by the Kepler Space Telescope (NASA)

In the biggest haul ever of new exoplanets, scientists with NASA’s Kepler mission announced the confirmation of 1,284 additional planets outside our solar system — including nine that are relatively small and within the habitable zones of their host stars.  That almost doubles the number of these treasured rocky planets that orbit their stars at distances that could potentially support liquid water and potentially life.

Prior to today’s announcement, scientists using Kepler and all other exoplanet detection approaches had confirmed some 2,100 planets in 1,300 planetary systems.  So this is a major addition to the exoplanets known to exist and that are now available for further study by scientists.

These detections comes via the Kepler Space Telescope, which collected data on tiny decreases in the output of light from distant stars during its observing period between 2009 and 2013.  Those dips in light were determined by the Kepler team to be planets crossing in front of the stars rather than impostors to a 99 percent-plus probability.

As Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA Headquarters put it,  “This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth.”

he histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for more than the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous non-Kepler planet discoveries, the light blue bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the orange bar displays the 1,284 new validated planets. (NASA Ames/W. Stenzel; Princeton University/T. Morton)
The histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for more than the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous non-Kepler planet discoveries, the light blue bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the orange bar displays the 1,284 new validated planets.
(NASA Ames/W. Stenzel; Princeton University/T. Morton)

The primary goals of the Kepler mission are to determine the demographics of exoplanets in the galaxy, and more specifically to determine the population of small, rocky planets (less than 1.6 times the size of Earth) in the habitable zones of their stars.  While orbiting in such a zone by no means assures that life is, or was, ever present, it is considered to be one of the most important criteria.

The final Kepler accounting of how likely it is for a star to host such an exoplanet in its habitable zone won’t come out until next year.  But by all estimations, Kepler has already jump-started the process and given a pretty clear sense of just how ubiquitous exoplanets, and even potentially habitable exoplanets, appear to be.

“They say not to count our chickens before they’re hatched, but that’s exactly what these results allow us to do based on probabilities that each egg (candidate) will hatch into a chick (bona fide planet),” said Natalie Batalha, co-author of the paper in the Astrophysical Journal and the Kepler mission scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

“This work will help Kepler reach its full potential by yielding a deeper understanding of the number of stars that harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets — a number that’s needed to design future missions to search for habitable environments and living worlds.”

Batalha said that based on observations and statistics the Kepler mission has produced so far, we can expect that there are some 10 billion relatively small, rocky  (and potentially habitable) planets in our galaxy.  And with those numbers in mind, she said, the closest is likely to be in the range of 11 light years away.

She said that all of the exoplanets found in habitable zones are in the “exoplanet Hall of Fame.”  But she said two of the newly announced planets in habitable zones, Kepler 1286b and Kepler 1628b, joined two previous exoplanets of particular interest either because of their size (close to that of Earth) or their Earth-like distance from suns rather like ours.

Batalha said a new and finely-tuned software pipeline has been developed to better analyze the data collected during those four years of Kepler observations.  Asked if the final Kepler catalogue of exoplanets, expected to be finished next summer, would increase the current totals of exoplanets found, she replied:  “It wouldn’t surprise me if we had hundreds more to add.”

Since Kepler launched in 2009, 21 planets less than twice the size of Earth have been discovered in the habitable zones of their stars. The orange spheres represent the nine newly validated planets announcement on May 10, 2016. The blue disks represent the 12 previous known planets. These planets are plotted relative to the temperature of their star and with respect to the amount of energy received from their star in their orbit in Earth units. (NASA Ames/N. Batalha and W. Stenzel)
Since Kepler launched in 2009, 21 planets less than twice the size of Earth have been discovered in the habitable zones of their stars. The orange spheres represent the nine newly validated planets announcement on May 10, 2016. The blue disks represent the 12 previous known planets. These planets are plotted relative to the temperature of their star and with respect to the amount of energy received from their star in their orbit in Earth units. (NASA Ames/N. Batalha and W. Stenzel)

Once the Kepler exoplanet list is updated, scientists around the world will begin to study some of the most surprising, enticing, and significant finds.  Kepler can tell scientists only the location of a planet, its mass and its distance from the host star.  So the job of further characterizing the planets — and ultimately determining if any are indeed potentially habitable — requires other telescopes and techniques.

Nonetheless, Kepler’s ability to give scientists a broad picture of the distribution of exoplanets — to find large numbers of them rather than, as pre-Kepler, one or two at a time — has been revolutionary.  It has also been remarkably speedy, thanks in large part to an automated system of analyzing transit data devised by Tim Morton, a research scientist at Princeton University,

“Planet candidates can be thought of like bread crumbs,” Morton said in a NASA teleconference. “If you drop a few large crumbs on the floor, you can pick them up one by one. But, if you spill a whole bag of tiny crumbs, you’re going to need a broom. This statistical analysis is our broom.”

Kepler identified another 1,327 candidates that are very likely to be exoplanets, but didn’t meet the 99 percent certainty level required to be deemed an exoplanet.

A large percentage of the newly confirmed planets are either “super-Earths” or “sub-Neptunes” — planets in a size range absent in our solar system.  Initially, the widespread presence of exoplanets of these dimensions was a puzzle to the exoplanet community,  but now the puzzle is more why they are absent in our system.

Despite the abundance of these exoplanets — which are believed to be mostly gas or ice giants — scientists are convinced there are considerably more rocky, even Earth-sized planets that current telescopes can’t detect.

 The size distribution of discovered exoplanet has been a surprise to scientists. The blue bars on the histogram represent all previously verified exoplanets by size. The orange bars on the histogram represent Kepler's 1,284 newly validated planets. (NASA Ames/W. Stenzel)
The size distribution of discovered exoplanet has been a surprise to scientists. The blue bars on the histogram represent all previously verified exoplanets by size. The orange bars on the histogram represent Kepler’s 1,284 newly validated planets. (NASA Ames/W. Stenzel)

 

The primary Kepler mission focused on one small piece of the sky — about 0.25 percent of it — and a distant part at that. It watched nonstop for transiting planets in that space for four years, watching unblinkingly at some 150.000 stars. The result has been a treasure trove of data that can then be broadened statistically to tell us about the entire galaxy.

So Kepler has revolutionized our understanding of the galaxy and what’s in it, and has proven once and for all that exoplanets are common.  But the individual planets that it has detected are unlikely to be the ones that allow for breakthroughs in terms of sniffing out what chemicals are in their atmospheres — an essential process for determining if a potentially habitable planet actually has some of the ingredients for life.

This is because Kepler was looking far into the cosmos, between 600 and 3,000 light years from our sun.  While the telescope identified almost 5,000 “candidate planets” during its four years of primary operation — and now more than 2,200 confirmed planets — the planets are generally considered too distant for the more precise follow-up observing needed to understand their atmospheres and chemical make-ups.

This work will fall to ground-based telescopes looking at nearer stars, and to future generations of American and European space telescopes using the transit method of detection pioneered by Kepler. (See graphic above.)  The next space satellite in line is NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite  (TESS), which is scheduled to launch in 2017 and will focus on planets orbiting much closer and brighter stars.  The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in 2018, also has the potential to study exoplanets with a precision, and in wavelengths, not available before.

NASA has begun development of the more sophisticated Wide Field Infrared Survey Satellite (WFIRST) to further exoplanet research in the 2020s,  and has set up formal science and technology definition teams to plan for a possible flagship exoplanet mission for the 2030s.  That mission would potentially have the power and techniques to determine whether an exoplanet actually has the components, or the presence, of life.

 

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The Exoplanet Era

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Many, and perhaps most stars have solar systems with numerous planets, as in this artist rendering of Kepler 11. (NASA)

Throughout the history of science, moments periodically arrive when new fields of knowledge and discovery just explode.

Cosmology was a kind of dream world until Edwin Hubble established that the universe was expanding, and doing so at an ever-faster rate. A far more vibrant and scientific discipline was born. On a more practical level, it was only three decades ago that rudimentary personal computers were still a novelty, and now computer-controlled, self-driving cars are just on the horizon. And not that long ago, genomics and the mapping of the human genome also went into hyperspeed, and turned the mysterious into the well known.

Most frequently, these bursts of scientific energy and progress are the result of technological innovation, coupled with the far-seeing (and often lonely and initially unsupported) labor and insights of men and women who are simply ahead of the curve.

We are at another of those scientific moments right now, and the subject is exoplanets – the billions (or is it billions of billions?) of planets orbiting stars other than our sun.

The 20th anniversary of the breakthrough discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a sun, 51 Pegasi B, is being celebrated this month with appropriate fanfare. But while exoplanet discovery remains active and planet hunters increasingly skilled and inventive, it is no longer the edgiest frontier.

Now, astronomers, astrophysicists, astrobiologists, planetary scientists, climatologists, heliophysicists and many more are streaming into a field made so enticing, so seemingly fertile by that discovery of the ubiquitousness of exoplanets.

The new goal: Identifying the most compelling mysteries of some of those distant planets, and gradually but inexorably finding ever-more inventive ways to solve them. This is a thrilling task on its own, but the potential prize makes it into quite an historic quest. Because that prize is the identification of extraterrestrial life.

The presence of life beyond Earth is something that humans have dreamed about forever – with a seemingly intuitive sense that there just had to be other planets out there, and that it made equal sense that some of them supported life. Hollywood was on to this long ago, but now we have the beginning technology and fast-growing knowledge to transform that intuitive sense of life out there into a working science.

The thin gauzy rim of the planet in foreground is an illustration of its atmosphere. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)
The thin gauzy rim of the planet in foreground is an illustration of its atmosphere. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

Already the masses and orbits of several thousand exoplanets have been measured. Some planets have been identified as rocky like Earth (as opposed to gaseous like Jupiter.) Some have been found in what the field calls “habitable zones” – regions around distant suns where liquid water could plausibly run on a surface –as it does on Earth and once did on Mars. And some exoplanets have even been determined to have specific compounds – carbon dioxide, water, methane, even oxygen – in their atmospheres.

This and more is what I will be exploring, describing, hopefully bringing to life through an on-going examination of this emerging field of science and the inventive scientists working to understand planets and solar systems many light-years away. Theirs is a daunting task for sure, and progress may be halting. But many scientists are convinced that the goal is entirely within reach – that based on discoveries already made, the essential dynamics and characteristics of very different kinds of planets and solar systems are knowable.

Thus the name of this offering: “Many Worlds.”

 

Artist rendering of early stages of planet formation in the swirl and debris of the disk of a new star. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist rendering of early stages of planet formation in the swirl and debris of the disk of a new star. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

I was first introduced to, and captivated by, this cosmic search in a class for space journalists taught by scientists including Sara Seager, a dynamic young professor of physics and planetary science at M.I.T., a subsequently-selected MacArthur “genius,” and a pioneer in the field not of discovering exoplanets, but of characterizing them and their atmospheres.

And based on her theorizing and the observations of many others, she was convinced that this characterizing would lead to the discovery of very distant extraterrestrial life, or at least to the discovery of planetary signatures that make the presence of life highly probable. Just this week, she predicted the discovery could take place within a decade.

It was in 2010 that she began her book “Exoplanet Atmospheres” with the statement: “A new era in planetary science is upon us.” I would take it further: A new era has arrived in the human drive to understand the universe and our place in it.

Exoplanets and their solar systems are a magnet to young scientists, says Paul Hertz, the head of NASA’s Astrophysics Division. Almost a third of the papers presented at astronomy conferences these days involve exoplanets, he said, and “it’s hard to find scientists in our field under thirty not working on exoplanets.” Go to a major geology conference, or a planetary science meeting, and much the same will be true.

And why not? I think of this moment as akin to the time in the 17th century when early microscopes revealed a universe of life never before seen. So many new questions to ask, so many discoveries to make, so much exciting and ultimately world-changing science ahead.

But the challenge of characterizing exoplanets and some day identifying signs of life does not lend itself to the kind of solitary or small group work that characterized microbiology (think the breakthrough NASA Kepler mission and the large team needed to make it reality and to analyze its results.) Not only does it require costly observatories and telescopes and spectrometers, but it also needs the expertise that scientists from different fields can bring to the task – rather like the effort to map the human genome.

That is the organizing logic of astrobiology – the more general hunt for life elsewhere in our solar system and far beyond, alongside the search for clues into how life may have started on our planet. NASA is eager to encourage that same spirit in the more specific but nonetheless equally sprawling exploration of exoplanets, their atmospheres, their physical makeup, their climates, their suns, their neighborhoods.

 

The Earth alongside “Super-Earth-” sized exoplanets identified with the Kepler Space Telescope. (NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech)
The Earth alongside “Super-Earth-” sized exoplanets identified with the Kepler Space Telescope. (NASA Ames / JPL-Caltech)

 

The result was the creation this summer of the the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), a group that will be led by 17 teams of scientists from around the country already working on some aspect of the rich exoplanet opportunity. The group was selected from teams that had applied for grants from NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, an arm of its larger NASA Astrobiology Program, as well as other NASA programs in the Planetary Sciences, Astrophysics and Astronomy divisions.

Their mandate is to spark new approaches in the effort to understand exoplanets by identifying areas without consensus in the broader community, and then fostering collaborations here and abroad to address those issues.

“Many Worlds” grew out of the NExSS initiative, and will chronicle and explain the efforts of some team members as they explore how exo-plants and exo-creatures might be detected; what can be learned from afar about the surfaces and cores of exoplanets and how both play into the possibility of faraway life; the presence and dynamics of exo-weather, what we can learn about exoplanets from our own planet and solar system, and so much more.

A few of the teams are small, but many are quite large, established and mature – perhaps most especially the Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington, and run by Victoria Meadows. Since 2001, the virtual lab has collaborated with researchers representing many disciplines, and from as many as 20 institutions, to understand what factors might best predict whether an exoplanet harbors life, using Earth as a model.

But just as I will be venturing beyond NExSS in my writing about this new era of exploration, so too will NExSS be open to the involvement of other scientists in the field. The original group has been tasked with identifying an agenda of sorts for NASA exoplanet missions and efforts ahead. But its aim is to be inclusive and its conclusions and recommendations will only be as useful and important as the exoplanet community writ large determines them to be.

The Carina Nebula, one of many regions where stars come together and planets later form made out of the surrounding dust, gas and later rock. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team)
The Carina Nebula, one of many regions where stars come together and planets later form made out of the surrounding dust, gas and later rock. (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team)

This is a moment pregnant with promise. Systematically investigating exoplanets and their environs is an engine for discovery and a pathway into that largest question of whether or not we are alone in the universe.

Will scientists some day find worlds where donkeys talk and pigs can fly (as at least one “everything is possible” philosopher has posited)? Unlikely.

But just as microscopes and the scientists using them led to the science of microbiology and most of modern medicine, so too are our orbiting observatories, Earth-based telescopes and the scientists who analyze their results are regularly opening up a world of myriad and often surprising marvels.

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